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Human Rights Crisis Threatens to Overshadow Mexican President Peña Nieto’s Visit to UK

We spoke with the ambassadors of both Mexico and the UK as the Mexican leader arrived in London for a state visit. The governments wish to promote ties, but critics in the UK decry human rights abuses in Mexico.

by Duncan Tucker
Mar 3 2015, 1:25am

Photo via Presidencia de México

Mexico's beleaguered President Enrique Peña Nieto touched down in London on Monday for a three-day state visit intended to strengthen trade and cultural ties between Mexico and the United Kingdom.

Peña Nieto's arrival came with controversy in the UK, with some outlets in the British press expressing concern over the government's decision to roll out the red carpet for the state visit, given the level of human rights abuses reported in Mexico. The Mexican president and First Lady Angelica Rivera will stay at Buckingham Palace and meet the queen and Prime Minister David Cameron.

On Tuesday, Peña Nieto and his wife are scheduled to visit Westminster Abbey and be treated to a banquet at Buckingham Palace.

Peña Nieto has been lauded on the international stage for passing an array of market-friendly reforms and jailing some of Mexico's top drug lords, including Servando "La Tuta" Gomez, the head of the Knights Templar cartel, who was captured on Friday after an eight-month manhunt.

However, his image has been tarred by recent corruption scandals and the likely massacre of 43 teachers college students last September, which caused the United Nations to condemn Mexico's record on forced disappearances last month.

The president was also embarrassed recently when Mexican film director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu used his Academy Awards acceptance speech to implore that Mexico "find and build the government that we deserve."

Related: Forced Disappearances, Uncounted Missing Haunt Mexico. Read more here.

Diego Gomez Pickering, the Mexican ambassador to the UK, told VICE News in an interview that Peña Nieto hopes to build a "stronger trade relationship and broader political dialogue" with the British government, and will discuss issues such as climate change, transparency and the strengthening of democratic institutions.

Peña Nieto's visit coincides with the "dual year," a twelve-month program meant to boost Britain and Mexico's cultural, academic and economic ties.

Gomez Pickering said Mexico hopes to receive 500,000 British tourists this year and has 120 activities planned across the UK throughout 2015, including exhibitions, performances, and trade seminars. The British government has also prepared a similar program in Mexico.

"The aim of the dual year is to get to know each other and move beyond stereotypes," Gomez Pickering said.

Mexico's profile has grown steadily, he added, noting that "the UK is the world's fifth biggest market for tequila and mezcal, while Mexican cuisine was the most consumed cuisine in London last year after Indian food."

A promotional video for the "dual year" program between the UK and Mexico.

Duncan Taylor, the British ambassador to Mexico, told VICE News that the "modest" level of trade with Mexico is poised to grow after years of "relative neglect." The UK is only Mexico's six largest trading partner among European Union countries.

Yet despite Britain's growing affinity for Mexico, Peña Nieto can expect a hostile reception from Mexican activist groups based in London, Manchester, Nottingham, Cambridge, Sheffield and Sussex. Several solidarity organizations have planned demonstrations, seminars and concerts to protest the state visit.

"We want show our discontent with the way the Mexican government is facing the ongoing human rights crisis in Mexico," Mijael Jimenez, a member of the London Mexico Solidarity group, told VICE News. "If the British government accepts a dialogue with the Mexican government then it becomes complicit in this crisis."

Related: Mexico Forgives Pope Francis After 'Mexicanization' Spat. Read more here.

Amnesty International staged a piñata protest outside the Mexican embassy in London.

Just as Peña Nieto's jet landed on Monday, Amnesty International broke open a piñata outside the Mexican embassy in central London that contained a petition with 13,000 signatures calling on the president to deal with Mexico's "torture crisis."

The petition, which was then delivered to the embassy, highlighted a sixfold increase in the number of reports of torture in Mexico in the last decade.

In response to criticism of the state visit, Gomez Pickering emphasized Mexico's commitment to freedom of expression and lamented the "very unfortunate recent events that have taken the spotlight."

'Some of the challenges that Mexico faces at the moment are very much a matter for the Mexicans themselves to deal with.'

An estimated 100,000 people have been killed and at least 22,000 people have disappeared in Mexico since 2006, although total figures remain uncertain. State security forces have often been implicated in human rights abuses in the government's campaign against powerful drug cartels.

The unresolved case of the missing students ignited a wave of unrest across Mexico last fall. Last week, thousands marched once more through Mexico City to mark the five-month anniversary of the disappearances.

"This is not an isolated event. Enforced disappearances have been used for decades in Mexico as a means of dealing with the political opposition and repressing social dissidence," Jimenez said. "In the last ten years, enforced disappearances have become more common again in the context of the war on drugs. Some of the victims' families say the army and police forces are abducting people and protecting the criminal gangs that are attacking the population."

Taylor, the British ambassador, told VICE News he "would be surprised" if Cameron did not discuss human rights with his Mexican counterpart, and said that the British government is already working with Mexico on capacity-building exercises in the areas of security, human rights, and corruption.

"It's obviously an important area but we recognize that some of the challenges that Mexico faces at the moment are very much a matter for the Mexicans themselves to deal with," the ambassador said.

Related: Rebuked Over Missing Students Case, Mexican Attorney General Steps Down. Read more here.

Follow Duncan Tucker on Twitter @DuncanTucker.